What is Truth?
The Question of Truth
In the Gospel of John, a fascinating dialogue takes place between Jesus and Pilate. It is a dialogue that cuts to the heart of our sinful nature, revealing just how blind and puffed up we are. In this dialogue, Jesus takes Pilate to the core issue and fundamental question of mankind: “What is truth?” This is not a question that we ask very often today. It is assumed that we know. Whatever truth has been discovered is already out there, but it does not become true for me until I experience it. More importantly, what is true for me differs from what is true for you and so knowing THE truth is really not knowable. Instead, we pay attention to context. If your truth is not my truth, then all truth is really relative. There is no one truth that binds all things together. We must, therefore, conform to the context in which we are placed as Paul did — be all things to all people — adapt to the culture. Speak truth to people, in their context, that is, speak to the people their particular contextualized truth in their particular context. What may work for you in your church community, may not work in mine — this just may not be the place for you. Find the place where truth feels right to you in your context. And yet if we do so — assume we all know the truth or contextualize — we miss the fundamental question for fallen humanity and fail to see the answer right in front of us, just as Pilate did.
Pilate Questions Jesus
In John 18, Jesus is brought before Pilate. Pilate takes Him aside for questioning in an effort, he thinks, to save His life. Yet Pilate does not know what and who is before him. Pilate wants to know if Jesus is indeed a king, not understanding that the Jews brought Jesus to him because He claimed to be THE King. Jesus’ reply pushes back at Pilate in the probing fashion that we are accustomed to see from Jesus throughout His ministry: “Do you say this of your own accord, or did some others say it to you about me?” This is no rhetorical question, but a question of faith and revelation. Put another way, Jesus asks Pilate, “Do you know who I am? Did flesh and blood reveal this to you or did my Father reveal it to you? Who do you say that I am?” It is the question posed to Jesus’ disciples, a question only Peter answered correctly, in faith. And yet, as we are so wont to do when confronted with the Christ, Pilate avoids the question. He deflects, turning instead to his own power and ability, responding in a fashion that echoes Adam’s reply to God when confronted with the reality of his own sin in the garden of Eden: “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and people have handed you over to me? What have you done?” “Look, sir,” says Pilate, “Your people want you dead. I did not bring you here, although they come according to our law. I can help you out. What did you do that was so bad? Confess it to me, and I can make it go away.” Adam’s response to God was, “It is your fault God. You gave me the woman, she gave me the fruit, and I ate it.” Sounds eerily similar does it not? And yet Jesus is not done. He reminds Pilate that His Kingdom is not an earthly Kingdom, handing him the rope to which he needs grasp and cling. Yet Pilate can see only the things of this world. He hears that Jesus has a Kingdom, and if a Kingdom He has, Jesus must be a King. If a King then a threat to Rome and Pilate’s rule in Judea. Pilate does not hear Jesus telling Him, “They have brought me to you because of my Word, because My Kingdom does away with all kingdoms of this world. It is My Word, My Message that undermines their authority, and will tear down their laws, their way of life, and their beliefs in order to give them life. This they cannot tolerate, and they, therefore, hate me and reject me.” Jesus, even though He is being led to His death, continues patiently preaching to Pilate the very Gospel of life. “You say that I am a King. For this purpose I was born, for this purpose I have come into this world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate responds to Jesus’ statement with the question of the ages for mankind:
“What is truth?” In the Greek it is ““τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια?”” the Latin, “Quid est Veritas?”
Pilate could very well have been a seeker, an atheist or agnostic of our day, engaging with Christ in this dialogue. He was certainly intrigued by Jesus given that this peculiar people had brought Him directly to Pilate. And not just a few leaders, but the chief priests, scribes, and pharisees. They were usually united in their opposition to the Romans and zealous observers of their own law. They would do anything to protect one of their own from uncleanness or from being wronged at the hands of a Gentile. And certainly they would never advocate that one of their own be handed over to the Romans to be publicly executed. A strange people indeed, whose zeal for their God puzzled Pilate. Yet here they were in his courtyard in the fortress of Antonia, attached to their holy Temple, inciting a riot over this man. Pilate himself was a man who had no difficulty in offending these people in order to assert his authority and to keep order and peace. But there was something about this man Jesus that had this people in an uproar, and threatened to ignite a revolt in Pilate’s territory. And if that were not enough, Pilate’s wife too had warned him to have nothing to do with this Holy Man.
Time must have stood still at some point in this dialogue. Perhaps it was as Pilate pondered the question he had just uttered. An awkward silence follows between Pilate and the God Man — Pilate staring into the eyes of His Creator, Jesus’ gaze penetrating into the very heart of Pilate — until Pilate finally breaks Christ’s gaze, and went back outside to deal with the crowd. Or maybe it occurred before Pilate asked the question as he let Christ’s words wash over him, mulling the meaning of bearing witness to the Truth. Perhaps the question that followed was a dismissive one — “What is truth?”
In either case, Pilate’s response is the same: measured and pragmatic. He handled the Truth in much the same way we handle it in our own churches and the civil realm today: Pilate struck a balance and avoided the question. He realized that Jesus was an innocent man, but that His accusers were hell bent on having Him executed although they had not the authority to do so. None of the Gospel texts tell us whether Pilate knew who Jesus really was, whether he did indeed come to comprehend the Truth of which and of whom Christ spoke. And truth was secondary here anyway. Truth was (and is) something to be accepted or rejected. What mattered was Pilate’s ambition, maintaining order in his portion of the Empire. After all, Pilate did not expect to remain in this place forsaken by the gods forever, so he gave the this silly little people a choice — a prisoner exchange. The custom was to show good will to the Jewish people at the time of their Passover, and release a prisoner. This, Pilate must have thought, would assuage the crowd, quell an uprising and keep the peace. If it meant that the innocent man was to die, so be it. The people made their choice, not him. Unwittingly he uttered the phrase of Adam as he washed his hands of the matter, “Those people you gave ME God to rule over, they are the ones who killed your Son, not I. And in striking this bargain with the people, Pilate traded the Truth for a liar and a murderer. In so doing, the entire human race both Jew and Gentile are responsible for the murder of the Son of God.
“What is truth?” “τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια?” “Quid est Veritas?”
And what of Pilate’s question: What is truth? This question applied to all the players on the cosmic stage — the gentiles and God’s chosen people. Pilate avoided the question, and Jesus did not answer it with words. For Pilate, the real answer was inconsequential. What mattered was his future — moving out of this dark corner of the empire into something a little more palatable. If he did not keep the situation under control, his career could be in trouble. For the Jews, it was maintaining the authority of the Law and enforcing the boundaries they had set up to keep the people separate and apart as they awaited the fulfillment of God’s promised Messiah. Even when presented with the Truth by Pilate — “Behold the Man” — the Jews could not see it. Their community was threatened by this itinerant prophet, and so they rejected it. In both cases, the Truth was traded was for glory and honor — one personal, the other ostensibly to honor God. A mess of pottage; a kingdom in this world. Neither saw the answer, although He bound their fate together. The truth, bloodied and marred beyond recognition, stared them plainly in the face. To paraphrase Jack Nicholson, “They couldn’t handle the truth.”
Jesus is the TRUTH
The objective, real, authentic, fact of history TRUTH is Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, the eternal Logos, Word made flesh, God skin-tenting among His people. The TRUTH is the man, with torn flesh, fresh wounds dripping blood led away as a beast of burden, saddled with the instrument that would be used to accomplish His death. The TRUTH is the lamb of God, nailed to the cross, blood flowing from open wounds, a side that is pierced so that the blood and water that sustain life gushes forth emptying the life of the man, and yet giving birth to the church, forgiveness, life, and salvation to each of us. All of this is accomplished in the body of the bloodied God-man on the cross. This is a factual, historical event that took place in our time and space. This is Jesus dealing with the problem of evil. This is Jesus dealing with our addictions, our crimes, our murders, our thefts, our lies, our omissions, our arrogance, our pride. This is Jesus dealing with our adulteries, pornography, divorces, our rapes, our incest. This is Jesus dealing with cancer, and disease. This is Jesus dealing with homosexuality, AIDS, poverty, and oppression. This is Jesus dealing with our failure, with our sin. This is Jesus dying. This is Jesus for you and for me. This is your story, and my story. Our story is bound to the cross and the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of the God-Man. Without Jesus, we simply die, separated from the Creator into nothingness. Forever.
The TRUTH is, we put the Christ on the cross. I did it. You did it. The TRUTH is, we meet Jesus in no other way than in the bloodied, disfigured, unrecognizable God-man on the cross. That is where He confronts us. That is how He confronts us — with the reality of a blood stained body that was bruised and beaten to give you life. He does not confront us as our lover, our buddy, our prom date, our homecoming king, or even as a really nice guy. Jesus confronts us with the TRUTH, and demands that we die, that we follow Him into the very death that wanted to swallow Him whole. That death that Jesus in TRUTH rent apart and cast off. And die we must, if we are to live in TRUTH.
It is easy to dismiss the word of truth — we simply close the book. It is even easier to dismiss visual depictions of the truth — we look the other way. Most people cannot look at a bloodied, dying man on a cross for any length of time before turning aside or asking the picture be removed. In either case we fill our heads with what we believe to be more pleasant thoughts, happy thoughts. We look to find our happy place. Or we surround ourselves with other, like-minded people who believe like we do. We do not like to be challenged or confronted, but we do like to be confirmed in our “truth,” our belief. We prefer to control the terms of our encounter with the TRUTH, much like Pilate did. The truth, however, is we trade the Truth for idols, for lies. We look through blind eyes and see what we want to see, not what is truly there. In the end it is nothing more than self-glorification, Truth Avoidance. Pilate did both, turning away from the Christ standing before him. He dismissed Jesus’ own words and the word of Truth that came from his own wife when she told him not to have anything to do with this “holy man.” And Pilate retreated into his own community where he relied on his customs and traditions to appease this peculiar people crying out for the execution of this man by offering a prisoner exchange. It was a gesture of goodwill. Pilate relied on his own strength, his position of power. And yet God used this exchange for our good. What appeared to be a horrible trade turned out to be the most blessed of exchanges for the life of the world.
The Great Mystery of Truth
The fact of the matter is, THE TRUTH never comes to us in the way we want or in the way we expect. Pilate had no idea that the one on whom the fate of the entire world hinged stood before him. He saw merely a man, wrongfully accused, but whose life, to him, was inconsequential, just another Jew in this place forsaken by the gods. He saw the Christ as another life that could be bartered, sold, or destroyed at his whim. The truth is, TRUTH is always at odds with our conception of reality and our perception of our own, human condition. TRUTH confronts us, turns us away from our idols and forces us to gaze upon the crucified one. Here is the reality of our wretchedness and sinfulness — that we would so beat and disfigure another human being who spoke the truth of God into the world; that we would despise another human being that we would be willing to cast him out of our community, hand him over to the cruelest most repressive government that would torture him and kill him, causing him to suffer the most humiliating death, exposing his nakedness for all the world to see. And we lied, cheated, killed, and stole to do it. Yes, Jesus has arisen, and He now lives and reigns over the universe. But the TRUTH is, we cannot get to the risen One, we cannot receive Him and the blessings He imparts to us if we do not first deal with the crucified One who confronts our sin, our wretchedness, and our death.
At Christmas, we are given a gift — a child. The God-Man, taking on the flesh of man. It is a great wonder a great mystery wrapped in the Word of God. All the promises of God are fulfilled in the coming of this child, the proclamation of the angels, the worship of lowly shepherds and great scholars from the East. Yet in this child is the itinerant prophet, the one high priest, and the eternal King. He comes to bear the TRUTH of humanity in His flesh, and to deal with it once and for all time. He comes for one purpose: to die as chief of sinners. That we should be able at His birth to see the death of the King is certainly strange. But God does not come to us as we expect. The Jews expected a warrior King that would establish Israel as a nation once again. Instead, they got a prophet who they killed for blasphemy. Not quite what they expected. But then, no one expected Christ to rise from the dead either. That God takes on the flesh of a child who is given the feeding trough of animals as His bed the night of His entry into this world is not what we expect either. And therein lies the conundrum of the TRUTH — it is not what we expect; it is not what we want it to be; it is not what we make it to be.
So “What is truth?” “τί ἐστιν ἀλήθεια?” “Quid est Veritas?” TRUTH IS Christ, His person, His work, His Word, given and revealed to us in sacred Scripture.
And since we have the same spirit of faith, according to what is written, “I believed and therefore I spoke,” we also believe and therefore speak… 2 Corinthian 4:13
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” John 6:28-29.